Indexing Committee Member Makes Comments on Indoor Track Conversions

Courtesy: open letter

December 6, 2012   

To the Editor, Track & Field News:

As a member of the subcommittee on indoor track conversions I have read the recent serial coverage of this topic in Track & Field News with interest and disappointment.  My disappointment stems for the campaign-style coverage, complete with overblown rhetoric and allegations of “home cooking.” In the interest of civil discourse I have discarded my earlier, admittedly snarky, drafts of this response.  It is my hope we can be given the opportunity to present our evidence and have it judged with open minds.

The committee was tasked with bringing consistency to the NCAA’s balkanized and contradictory set of indoor track conversions. We were uniquely privileged to be the first group to have access to an incredible resource, the TFRRS database. Our mandate was to base our findings on evidence and not on perception (“feel”), self interest or influence by the NCAA standards in place at the time.

The two major complaints about our findings are (1) we are too conservative in addressing the perceived distinction between banked and oversized tracks and (2) we are too liberal with our flat track to banked/oversized track conversions. The criticism of the former, to date, has been based strictly on perception. The preponderance of evidence we examined, across events and genders, strongly supports maintaining the Division I status quo of equality between banked and oversized track. For example in the men’s 3000m although the average time difference in going from an oversized track to a banked track is 1.46 seconds less than the average oversize to oversize difference (1.25 and 2.71 seconds respectively in our sample),  the average time difference between flat and banked tracks was similar to the difference between flat and oversized tracks (an improvement of 7.36 and 7.39 seconds respectively in our sample) and the time difference in the sequence banked to oversize, 2.14 seconds, was somewhat less than the banked to banked sequence, 2.38 seconds. As discussed in Appendix D of the committee report, there are instances of an “anomalous deficit” going from an oversized track to a banked track that is inconsistent with every other sequence. Lacking consistent proof of a clear distinction between banked and oversize tracks we felt the prudent course of action was to treat those two track types similarly. The fact that fast runners run on oversized tracks does not necessarily mean oversized tracks are faster than banked tracks (as implied by the Scott Davis & Jack Pfeifer statistics that are cited) any more so than claiming banked tracks are faster because the American, NCAA and high school indoor records for the men’s 5000m were set on one in New York City.

The goal of the committee was to create conversions that give athletes competing on any track type equal opportunity to qualify for our indoor championships. Circumstantial evidence suggests this has not been the case. In 2009 Rich Ceronie looked at the percentage of athletes meeting the NCAA Division I provisional standard in the track-geometry effected events and the unaffected events. He found that 4% of the women qualifiers and 2.5% of the men qualifiers met the standard on flat tracks while ~20% of qualifiers in the unaffected events came from those facilities. Similarly, in the three years of TFRRS data 2.8% of the men’s top 50 in the relevant individual events (excluding the 200m) plus the two relay events came on flat tracks. For women the comparable number is 4.4%. While by no means proof, the strong inference is the previous conversions were detrimental to qualifying opportunities on flat tracks. I wish to stress we did not seek any specific outcome (in fact, my pre-study impression was the flat to banked/oversized conversions were too generous) but the data drove us to the current results.

Jonathon Berenbom’s statement in the sidebar to the article in the January 2013 issue that  “results of mediocre athletes are being used to set standards for elites” should be examined carefully and the consequences noted.  We use race distance as a proxy for speed. This is unfortunate because the range of speeds within a given event overlap the speed range of adjacent events. We accept without question that the conversion for the 400m is stronger than that for the 800m and similarly the conversion for the 800m is stronger than that for the mile.  In our current system this leads to the following improbable scenario. As it now stands, a poor male 800m runner (2:16), a college-average miler (4:33), an above average 3000m runner (8:30) and an exceptional 5000m runner (14:10) have different conversions although they are running the same speed. Furthermore the biggest conversion is for the poorest performance! The logical conclusion is that results based on the performances of mediocre athletes could underestimate the conversion appropriate for elite athletes. My radical suggestion is that conversions should be based on average running speed regardless of the race distance.

I take joy from seeing the amazing results from meets at Washington, the Armory and every other facility that yields top-flight performances. Those meets do an admirable job of creating an environment that yields superlative times. It is neither my, nor the committee’s, desire to detract from these events. However, I also feel it would be great if the substantial portion of the NCAA track community that lacks the resources or prestige to compete in those settings were afforded the same chance to demonstrate their capabilities on 200m tracks with fair, evidence-based conversions.

Scott Jones

The University of Akron